By Debbie James

Overhauling the young calf rearing process with textbook colostrum management and a purpose-built youngstock building is improving herd health for the long term at a St Clears dairy farm.

Aeron and Carys Owens, who run the pedigree Caria Holstein Friesian herd at Manor Farm with their eldest son, Rhys, reviewed calf management protocols after losing calves to mycoplasma, pneumonia and other illnesses.

They have since changed their system, investing in an igloo-based rearing shed and concentrating on ensuring that calves get high quality colostrum.

Cows from the all year round calving Holstein Friesian herd have a dry period of at least 42 days and, a week before they are due to calf, they are housed in a straw-bedded pen and fed a transition diet of grass silage, wholecrop and dry cow minerals.

“It fills their rumen and means they have good quality colostrum at calving,’’ Carys explains.

One of her most valuable aids to underpinning calf health cost less than £20. An optical device used in beer making doubles as a refractometer for assessing the quality of colostrum.

It gives a score for the intestinal digestibility (igd) of colostrum. The ideal score is between 20 and 25 igd, says Carys, but the appearance of colostrum can be very deceptive.

“It might be thick and a lovely golden colour but only have an igd of 15, that can often be the case with heifers.’’

If a cow is producing poor quality colostrum her calf is either given artificial colostrum or good quality colostrum from another cow which Carys stores in the freezer.

If a cow calves during milking she is milked in the parlour and her calf gets four litres of her colostrum, if it is of sufficient quality, within 30 minutes of her being milk. If she calves out of sync with milking, she is milked with a portable milking machine and the calf is given the colostrum.

The calf will get another four litres before it is 12 hours old. This is followed by bottle feeds of four litres of milk replacer and cow’s milk combined twice a day to prepare the calf for transitioning to an automatic feeder. Navels are dipped with iodine three times.

The farm vet, David Staak, blood tests the calves between three and 14 days old to establish their blood immunoglobulin level.

Calves move to automatic feeder when they are six or seven days old, depending on how eager they are. “There is no point pushing them if they are not keen,’’ says Carys.

They have six feeds a day, at a concentration of 240g of replacer per litre. at peak feeding they consume 1kg of powder a day. The whey-based replacer is 26 per cent protein and 17 per cent butterfat.

Calves are weaned at 70 days old, by which time they will have doubled their birthweight. “I fit them with a weighband as day olds and I like them to double their birthweight at weaning. They mostly exceed this,’’ says Carys.

A contributory factor, she believes, is dehorning calves within two days of birth. “Debudding at a young age, using a paste, means they don’t have any stresses before weaning.’’

The shed, which has two open sides, is divided into five pens with calves grouped according to age. The straw bedding is refreshed twice a week but a stone floor allows liquid to drain away so the bedding keeps dry.

Water troughs are cleaned out every day and filled up with fresh water. “If the water isn’t good enough for us to drink why should we expect a calf to drink it?’’ says Carys.

The water comes from a borehole therefore it is regularly screened for bacteria which could compromise calf health.

With the cost of rearing a heifer replacement estimated to cost between £1,000 and £1,500, Carys says every dairy farmer should make calf health a priority.

“I spend as much time with the calves as I do with the cows,’’ she says.